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7/7/2011
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Google's Prizes.org Awards Cash For Ideas

After the failure of Google Answers, Google's latest question-answering service offers the possibility of a cash prize as an incentive to participate.

10 Crowdsourcing Success Stories
Slideshow: 10 Crowdsourcing Success Stories
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Over the weekend, Slide, the social entertainment company acquired by Google last fall, quietly launched Prizes.org, a website that allow users to offer an award for the completion of a specified task.

"Prizes.org is currently a beta product created by Slide, a small startup that operates within Google," a Google spokersperson explained in an email. "It's a place where you can win real cash prizes by coming up with the best ideas to help others out. People create contests on Prizes.org with real money bounties for anything they need, ranging from advice for the perfect weekend getaway, ideas for a best man's speech, to a plan for losing weight for summer."

Google's spokesperson said that the long-term vision is to create a product akin to the X Prize Foundation for everyday people and everyday contests.

The site is only allowing a select number of beta testers to create contests at the moment, but anyone can participate by signing in with a Facebook or Twitter ID. At some point, it's likely to support Google Account sign-in too. Google said it's looking to offer more ways to connect in the future.

Prizes.org resembles a cross between question-answering site Quora and reward-driven sites like 99Designs.com or InnoCentive.com. Google previously operated a question-answering service called Google Answers, which was launched in 2002 and shut down four years later.

While contest sites that solicit work "on spec" have been frequently criticized as a form of labor exploitation, Prizes.org might escape such condemnation if its users continue to submit contests that attempt to solicit general knowledge work rather than specialized skills.

For example, most of the presently visible contests solicit tasks that might be accomplished without special training, like "Plan my romantic honeymoon in Italy," "Help me name my new unborn daughter," or "Help me name my new screen printing company." Travel agents or naming consultants might argue such work benefits from professional experience, but currently listed contests appear unlikely to draw the ire of professions with specific technical skill sets like graphic designers, architects, or photographers.

David Ritter, CTO of InnoCentive, a question-answering service aimed at enterprises, said in an interview that while he was glad to see Google return to crowdsourcing, he expressed surprise that the company has opted for a dot-org address.

"I always thought dot-org was focused around the public good," he said, and characterized Prizes.org as "a missed opportunity for Google to do something significant with crowdsourcing.

"We really view the potential of crowdsourcing in a much more serious and impactful way," he said.

InnoCentive focuses on the high-end of the crowdsourcing market by offering prizes that start at $5,000 and go up to $1 million. The company has awarded prizes totaling more than $28 million since 2001. Ritter said his company strives to make a positive impact on the world by providing answers to questions that improve business processes and advance scientific research. He said that in February, the company awarded a $1 million prize for the identification of a biomarker associated with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Ritter acknowledged that crowdsourcing can be exploitative but stressed this can be avoided if contest rules and intellectual property ownership rules are clearly disclosed. He said his company had heard from people who had answers to posted challenges but declined to submit them, believing their answers to be worth something more like $10 million rather than the posted bounty.

"Candidly, if that solver had the answer and a way to monetize the answer, he or she would have the $10 million already," he said. "We reduce friction the market by connecting solvers with problems."

NASA began using InnoCentive in 2009 and has posted seven challenges since then, dealing with problems related to exercising and doing laundry in space to predicting solar flares and extending the shelf life of prepackaged foods.

To Ritter, crowdsourcing is a way to broaden the knowledge available to organizations. "People are already outsourcing and offshoring to other markets," he said. "We believe we're creating economic opportunities for people who wouldn't otherwise be able to tap them."

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